The Montgomery Town Board was called to task last week for what a number of residents called a lack of community involvement in the selection process of a new police chief and for a considering a candidate for that position whom they allege is a racist.
Lisa Ruiz, a member of the town’s EO 203 committee as well as the Valley Central Parents for Social Justice (VCPSJ), expressed frustration that they were being excluded from the selection process and that their concerns about the candidate were being ignored.
“When the town board refuses to allow community input and when they fail to take seriously and address the concerns brought to the board regarding the police department and its officers, you are violating the work of the EO 203,” said Ruiz.
In June of last year, then- Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order 203: New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. From June 12, 2020 to April 1, 2021, citizens from communities across New York State worked with their local elected officials and police departments to enact new ways for the police to perform their jobs in a more equitable and safe manner, particularly toward people of color, and to create and maintain a healthy relationship between the police and the communities they serve.
Ruiz said that for months the town has failed to form a police civilian advisory board (PCAB). She asked that the town board immediately form one and allow them to be part of the process of choosing a new police chief and lieutenant.
Norelis Santiago, a town resident and member of VCPSJ, asked that the board hold off on a decision about the police chief position until a functioning PCAB is in place. She said one of the things they’ve heard from the town is that no one has applied, however she said there were several applications that were sent and never received a response and offered to forward them to the town.
“So to move forward saying that there is no community is not true. We’re standing here before you to say that’s not true and we’re going on record, asking you to wait on making a decision until you have community involvement. Because we’re the people who are going to be living with your decisions,” said Santiago.
On the heel of that complaint came a request from several residents to reject the application of one particular candidate for police chief whom they called a racist.
Merrick Dammar told the board of a firsthand encounter he had with the officer ten years ago. He was on his front lawn, waiting on a friend to arrive. He had pulled in only seconds before a police car arrived with lights and sirens.
“Out of that car came a husky, huge giant of a police officer trolling across my front lawn and yelling at my friend.”
Dammar said the large officer with “muscles like a bear” grabbed his 74-year-old friend who was in bad health and only 5 foot 3 inches, and handcuffed him. He said the officer then pulled out a taser and put it to “the temple of my friend’s head and threatened to pull the trigger.”
Everyone at his home that night started yelling and screaming. The officer called in backup and eventually his friend was issued a speeding ticket. The officer said he had taken the turn at Berea and Coldenham at 57 mph, which Dammar said is “impossible” without flipping the car.
Several times the officer used the “N-word” during the encounter.
“What we believe is that this black man wearing a traditional Muslim outfit was seen by this officer entering this town and the officer got furious and decided to pursue that man,” said Dammar.
Dammar said a few weeks after the incident, his friend died from “shame, embarrassment, a broken heart and depression.”
“He kept living it over and over again, Mr. Supervisor,” said Dammar. “That he was disappointed in this town and totally embarrassed with the way he was treated as a human being because he was Muslim and he was Black. I too am a man of color and I refuse to be treated in this manner in this town or in any other town.”
Dammar said he is an attorney with a practice in the Bronx, as well as a radio personality and adjunct professor of law at CUNY. He has lived in Walden for 19 years.
“My grandparents were shanghaied from India by the British and taken to the West Indies to work the banana and sugar plantations in the late 1800s. They faced racism, brutality and bigotry. They were beaten, they were burnt and they were bitten by dogs,” said Dammar.
“I lived in Yonkers and left there because of racism and the behavior of the police force against my family and we were convinced that it was because of the color of our skin and the accent that we bore,” said Dammar.
Dammar had been hoping for something different in the town of Montgomery.
Dammar said the matter was brought to then Chief Butch Amthor ten years ago, an investigation conducted and then sent over to the board for discipline. Dammar said he hasn’t heard anything about that discipline and the supervisor said he hadn’t heard anything about the incident at all.
“When you refuse to invite me into your office to put this on the record, it becomes necessary for me to spend my time to address it publicly,” said Dammar, speaking directly to the supervisor.
Dammar said he was troubled that the public records of the incident were not located by the town and questioned if they were lost, misplaced or conveniently removed.
“I promised Chief Amthor that day that I was going to keep it private and not take it public. I regret doing that. I regret not taking it to the Justice Department as a hate crime,” Dammar said. “I regret not exposing it to the Attorney General of the State of New York. But that does not preclude me from doing that in the future.”
“If this man is made chief, your next actions will bring public scrutiny to this wonderful town,” Dammar warned.
“Please take heed that this is one man who has had enough. Over 100 years of indentured servitude in my family, I have had enough.”
After speaking for approximately 18 minutes, Brian Maher interrupted Dammar and said he would have to stop him so they could proceed with the meeting and business of the town. The room erupted into shouting as Dammar called out for audience members to yield their time to him and told the supervisor, “I refuse to be silent tonight!”
Maher relented and asked him to finish his comments.
“I had no intention of coming here tonight had you invited me in to put it on the record, so part of this sir, is your doing. I did not come here sir, to be silent. My grandparents were silent and I refuse to be,” said Dammar.
Ray Harvey, president of the Newburgh-Highland Falls Chapter of the NAACP, also spoke, upset by the supervisor’s interruption.
“How dare you? You don’t know how I feel right now, listening to his story. Because his story is my story. That’s not your story. So listen. That’s what’s been the problem. People ain’t been listening to our stories,” said Harvey.
Harvey encouraged the board to look outside their department and even outside the county for a good candidate. He noted that the City of Newburgh recently hired a commissioner and police chief that previously had nothing to do with Orange County.
“Fresh eyes, so no bias. Do their own thing. And so far, it’s been working out good,” said Harvey. “Don’t fall into the trap that they’ve got to be from Orange County.”
Other residents quickly spoke as well, all urging the board not to consider the officer.
“Listen to the voices of the members of our community when we are trying to make positive changes, make positive associations between the community and the police department and listen to the complaints that you’re hearing about the people you’re considering for the chief position,” said Kim Harrison, a VCPSJ member.
“I can’t think of a more dangerous situation than a police officer who harbors bias and racism. I can’t think of a more horrific nightmare scenario than that same officer being elevated to the powerful position of police chief,” said Jess Corr.
When contacted afterwards, Maher said there are six candidates for Chief of Police that are eligible through the Orange County Civil Service list.
“The Town Board is currently going through our interview process and we hope to make a selection by November 18,” Maher said. “We plan to do our due diligence on all of the candidates before coming to a decision. This decision will not be rushed.”
Regarding the lack of a Police Community Advisory Board, Maher said there was little interest when the positon was first announced.
“Since we did not have enough people at first to form a board we decided to put another ad in the paper and promote on social media and other outlets to encourage community members to serve on this very important Board. We have since received other interested members of our community and more than a month ago the board set a special meeting for October 18 for the purpose of conducting interviews for all of the vacancies on our Town Boards,” Maher said. “ We hope to fill many board vacancies and to establish the Police Community Advisory Board in the coming weeks after these interviews take place. Had we received more applications earlier in the year this board would have been established.”
Editor’s note: the name of the police officer accused of racism has been withheld, pending verification of the details of the incident described.